On the wall of the tasting room at Hampshire’s Hambledon Vineyard there is a black and white photo of a long queue of men and women, dressed in their best suits and frocks, queuing patiently to visit England’s first commercial winery in 1952. Today, that winery still goes by the same name but just about everything except the 300m-deep slab of chalk that lies beneath it has changed. The Seyval vines that were once used to make insipid white wine have been ripped out and replaced with 50 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. And instead of the ivy-clad farm building in the photo, the heart of the action is now a green metal box containing a state-of-the-art, gravity-fed winery, complete with wine presses worth a cool ¤250,000 each.
The other thing that’s almost certainly different to the 1950s is that the walls are decked with awards. Because Hambledon is just one of a swathe of wineries in southern England that are now coming to fruition, resulting in 10 gold medals at this year’s International Wine Challenge and at least two well‑publicised victories over champagne in blind tastings.
Even if one takes these wins with a judicious pinch of salt, 2016 is proving to be a watershed year for English sparkling wine, with sales at the UK’s biggest English wine retailer Waitrose already up 37.7 per cent by July, substantial plantings of champagne varietals and the launch of English fizz ventures from Taittinger and Pommery.
“The UK is currently champagne’s biggest export market -– and I believe that in 15 years, English wine will have 50 per cent of that market,” says Hambledon’s managing director Ian Kellett, who, as former managing director of investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, spent 10 years as one of the top-ranking food analysts in Europe. “Thirty years from now I think England will be one of the world’s leading winemakers, selling 50m bottles worldwide – but it needs billions, not tens of millions, of pounds of investment.”
Kellett had originally been eyeing vineyards near his second home in Bordeaux, when signs of life in the English wine market convinced him to buy the much-depleted Hambledon estate in 1999. “I’m a Francophile – I love France, I speak French, I employ French people,” he says, as his Rhodesian ridgeback lollops happily through the vines. “But then I thought: how much more fun to poke ’em in the eye with a stick, rather than just bringing them money to make more wine.
“But I never expected to spend the money we have. Including buying the place, we’ve spent between £10m and £12m in the past 15 years, and we’ve probably got £5m to go before we’re an operating business.”
Thanks to a number of minority shareholders, plus a sizeable grant from the UK and EU’s Rural Development Programme for England, he’s never quite gone under, but Kellett says he’s nearly been bankrupted on several occasions. “Yet if £100m dropped into my lap tomorrow, I’d do it all again.”
And there aren’t many estate owners more hands-on than Kellett, who studied oenology at Plumpton College and spent 10 years carrying out vine trials, soil studies and a forensic analysis of the competition before releasing a single bottle. Though he recently poached his head winemaker Hervé Jestin from Duval-Leroy, “I still choose every vine and rootstock myself – I use Hervé’s palate mainly to help us in blending.”
Both in terms of style and size, Kellett wants Hambledon to be “the Pol Roger of the UK” – Pol Roger even advised during the early stages of the project. “I want my wines to have that energy, that precision and linear accuracy,” he says, miming the flight of an arrow in the air before him.
Hambledon produces three Chardonnay-led cuvées: the mineral Classic Cuvée, a sherbetty rosé (out in October) and the wonderfully fine-textured yet full-bodied Première Cuvée. It was this latter wine that really put the cat among the pigeons last October when it beat off competition from 11 other sparkling wines, including Pol Roger and Taittinger, to come top in a blind tasting carried out by leading sommeliers and critics for wine magazine Noble Rot.
Kellett sets great store by the fact that Hambledon sits on the same ridge of Kimmeridgian chalk that runs under Champagne and Burgundy. “It’s because of that body of chalk,” he maintains, “that I believe Hampshire, and Winchester in particular, will one day be the centre of the English wine industry.”
But there are other award-winning wineries that might beg to differ. Gusbourne, which most recently won the Best English Sparkling Wine trophy for its Blanc de Blancs 2011 at the 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards, grows most of its grapes on 40 hectares just 10km from the Kentish coast, on a mix of clay and sand.
“For us the soil is only one part of the puzzle,” says head winemaker Charlie Holland, who joined Gusbourne in 2013 from Ridgeview in East Sussex. “We’re also very low-altitude – around 30m to sea level – with very close proximity to the sea, very sheltered, and we get a lot of sunshine. There are lots of influencing factors that are really key.”
One of those factors is the involvement of Lord Ashcroft, whose wine investment company Shellproof acquired Gusbourne in a reverse takeover in 2013, freeing up a healthy bit of capital and adding a further 30 hectares in West Sussex to the Gusbourne portfolio. Today, Gusbourne’s founder and executive chairman Andrew Weeber lives in Switzerland, but the retired South African orthopaedic surgeon still commutes regularly, and up until last year had picked every day of the harvest since he bought the estate in 2004.
Gusbourne’s flagship is its trophy-winning Blanc de Blancs, a supremely elegant wine with an unusually aromatic, nutty/floral character in the case of the 2011. But it also produces a lovely, lean rosé, which will be released in October in its 2013 incarnation. “Rosé in particular seems to show a big difference in styles – it has the potential to be a huge growth area for English wine,” says Holland. Two other excellent and very different rosés are the Coates & Seely La Perfide Rosé 2009, a rose-gold wine from Hampshire with mature dried apricots, not unlike a vintage brut, and Dorset’s rhubard-pink Langham Rosé 2013, which is as delightful as raiding a sun-warmed fruit cage. England’s rosé fizz offers huge variety and, increasingly, great quality too.
All Gusbourne’s wines, like most English fizz currently on the market, are vintage – a key point of difference from the champagne market, which is largely built on non-vintage cuvées.
While some, like Kellett, believe that the consistent, non-vintage style is the way forward for the sparkling wine industry, others argue that the variation offered by vintage is one of the things that makes English wine so interesting. Unless you’re talking about a year like 2012, when growing conditions were so “interesting” that some vineyards didn’t pick anything at all. “You’d have been better off putting the fruit in your shotgun to kill birds,” is the dry verdict of Simon Robinson, a former partner at Slaughter and May, whose Hampshire winery, Hattingley Valley, will be producing a new sparkling wine for Pommery.
Making good wine in such a changeable climate can be difficult, acknowledges Holland, “but the really difficult thing is selling it. A lot of people get so caught up in planting their vineyard and then eight years down the line when they’ve finally got a bottle of wine to sell they think, ‘What do we do now?’ The clever people are those who put sales first and then work backwards.”
And sales are growing all the time. Waitrose and M&S both increased their range of English sparkling wines this year, while Harvey Nichols, which also does an own-label English fizz, saw sales rise 15 per cent in 2015. Prestige cuvée merchants The Finest Bubble recently branched out from champagne to include fizz from Hambledon, Wiston and Hattingley Valley. Exports, however, only represent around five per cent of total English and Welsh sales.
The prospect of Brexit didn’t seem to concern many of the winemakers I spoke to – several suggested it might put just the kind of squeeze on sparkling wine imports that British producers needed. Only access to winemaking expertise, and French winemaking equipment, were mooted as potential problems.
But are any of these wineries actually making any money? Only Gusbourne and Chapel Down are plcs, which makes accurate figures hard to come by, but the general consensus seems to be: very few. Certainly shareholders in the market’s most recognisable brand, Tenterden’s Chapel Down, are still waiting for a dividend despite sales growth of 34 per cent to £8.18m in 2015. But its blue-chip management team, headed by the former global brand director for Heineken, Frazer Thompson, means business. Only 15 years ago this Kentish winery (and brewery) was selling fizz for £4.99 a throw – now the official supplier to 10 Downing Street sells 300,000 bottles a year at an average price of £21 (and, yes, the company did send new prime minister Theresa May a congratulatory case).
Chapel Down has had many accolades since Thompson joined in 2001, but the CEO says the biggest high is still to be found in the vineyards at the start of the growing season. “When you start to see the life come back into the vine it’s a very nerve-racking time, but it’s also exciting because it marks the beginning of the journey. You have no idea what the weather will hold – it’s like being on a rollercoaster on a track you can’t see.”
While most English sparkling wine sells for about £25-£30 a bottle, nestling just under the champagne bracket, Thompson believes that the future for non-vintage lies closer to the £20 mark, and prices his NV accordingly. “But the sky’s the limit – don’t be at all surprised to see £100 bottles of sparkling wine in the coming years.”
Nyetimber, the pioneer of English sparkling wine, is already well on the way there – the 2010 vintage of its citrus-and-clover Tillington Single Vineyard launched earlier this year at an ambitious £75, putting this Pinot-driven wine on a par price-wise with many grande marque champagnes.
Last autumn, Champagne Taittinger – which also has a sparkling wine interest, Domaine Carneros, in the Napa Valley – became the first champagne house to dip its toe into the English fizz market with the purchase of 69 hectares near Chilham in Kent. The venture, which is a collaboration with its UK agent Hatch Mansfield, will ultimately produce around 300,000 bottles of English sparkling wine a year under the name Domaine Evremond, with planting due to begin next May. Its first non-vintage will be released about seven years from now.
Champagne Pommery’s first English offering will be available much sooner – probably in three years’ time. Named Louis Pommery NV after Madame Pommery’s husband, “it will be much more Pinot-driven than Pommery champagne, possibly even a Blanc de Noirs,” says Vranken Pommery UK’s chairman Nick Hyde, who also confirms that Pommery is “actively looking” for land of its own.
One of the big draws of English terroir is the price – at around £20,000 to £25,000 per hectare, it’s a fraction of land in Champagne, which has fetched as much as ¤1.5 to 2m per hectare for the best sites. But since you can’t call anything produced here “champagne”, it’s not exactly like for like. Kellett, for one, believes the reason behind Champagne’s interest is simple: “We’re their biggest export market – they have to get involved to defend their market share.”
And the new wineries keep on coming – one of the most closely watched will be Rathfinny, a 240-hectare estate near Alfriston on the South Downs, which will release its first sparkling wine in 2018. Founded by Mark Driver, a former hedgefund manager, this £5.5m winery is vying to be the biggest producer on the market, with a target of more than 1m bottles a year by 2020.
The man who’s seen it all in 40 years of English winemaking is consultant viticulturist Stephen Skelton, MW – it was he who found the site for Taittinger when the French house was planning Domaine Evremond. “The thing most people struggle with is finding the right land,” says the author of Wine Growing in Great Britain. “Maybe it’s land they own already, or granny left it to them, or it’s just down the road from where they live – but I look on the map and say, ‘No way, it’s hopeless – where are your nearest apple orchards?’ and they say, ‘About 100 miles away,’ and I say, ‘Well, you know why, don’t you?’ You can change the vines, the varieties, practically everything, but you can’t change the site.”
And Skelton has some pithy advice for anyone getting too cocky about their chalky terroir: “On many sites the soil is almost irrelevant,” he huffs. “It’s the acidity and fruit character that define our wines – redcurrants, raspberries, Bramley apples – and those characteristics come from the climate, not the terroir. In this country, what a site needs most of all is shelter, because you want to create as hot an environment as possible.”
If England is so good at making sparkling wine, why has it taken so long to get round to it? Part of the reason, says Skelton, is a simple change in tastes: “In the old days of the English wine industry vineyards were mostly planted with Germanic varietals and Seyval but, when all the New World wines came on the market, German styles went out of fashion.
“It’s also only really since the mid-1990s that we’ve had the climate to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir,” he adds. “2003 was a particular watershed because it was very hot – 1976, 2003, 2009; a good hot year always brings the vineyard owners out!
“But the UK is a difficult place to make money out of wine,” continues Skelton, who nonetheless retains shares in Gusbourne, Chapel Down and Domaine Evremond. “You mustn’t underestimate the amount of capital and time it takes to establish a sparkling wine brand – it’s hard work.” He pauses. “But also very enjoyable.”